Choosing a Canoe
by Keith Attenborough
There is a lot of info out there on picking a canoe. This particular article is based on thoughts from a long time sea kayaker who decided to try something new and spent a lot of time researching and thinking about what to buy and why. Here's what I learned.
Build a relationship with your local paddling shop
Find a good, ideally local, shop to work with. It will be a really useful source of info and help. Clearly we'd recommend NK&C, but if you're reading this in Oregon or Florida, look for your local shop.
"Good" shops have staff who love to paddle, are focused on getting you into the best boat for you and are willing to spend the time to help you figure out which one that is. You'll also get to put your hands on real boats, see how they look and feel (and weigh). Most will have a demo fleet or other ways to let you test paddle various boats.
Then, buy from the shop. The good ones are small, locally owned businesses that provide a great service and earn your support.
Commit to picking a canoe you will actually use
This can be surprisingly hard, but a boat in the barn is no fun, so spend time thinking about it - then spend a bit more.
Keep in mind it's not necessarily the one your best bud or favorite magazine recommends or that looks sweet on the car. It's the one that best matches where you'll be paddling, the type of paddling you're doing, your comfort/skill level, and what you can pick up.
Most critically, get the one that puts a smile on your face - not only when you're paddling, but when you're picking it up or thinking about "a quick paddle" at day's end. And yes, aesthetics are part of it - life's too short to own an ugly boat.
Think about two basics
Decide if you want to tandem, solo, or both:
Most folks figure they'll be paddling with other folks, so a tandem is their first boat.
If you'll also be soloing, you'll want to look for tandems that are a bit shorter (15'-16' range), with narrower gunwale width, good secondary stability (so you can paddle with the boat on its edge - see Boat Design below) and a symmetric hull.
If you're planning on doing a lot of soloing (or teaming up with your boat dog), try out a dedicated solo boat. They are smaller, lighter and easier to handle, and they are a blast to paddle. And hey, it's hard to have too many boats.
Figure out what kind of paddling you're interested in:
I found boats are loosely spread along a spectrum that divides into two broad categories - "lake boats" and "river boats", like so:
Lake boats River boats
Sprint Wilderness Touring General Purpose River Tripping Whitewater
Lake boats are tuned for open water and slow moving rivers. They balance towards tracking and are designed to help handle the winds which can be a real pain in these spots. They tend to be longer, have less depth and less rocker (curve end to end).
River boats are tuned for faster water and obstacles, meandering creeks with lots of twists, and folks who just love boats that are very light on the water (freestylers). They balance towards maneuverability - shorter, more rocker, and deeper symmetric hulls.
Within that broad spectrum there is a lot of variety. Different manufacturers use different terms and categories, but here are some commonly used ones…
Sprint: Go straight fast boats. Extreme end of Lake boat side of the spectrum. Long, no rocker, can be kind of strange looking and generally very low stability.
Wenonah: Jensen series.
Wilderness Touring: For multi-day canoe trips along lakes and big rivers - larger load capacity, tuned for very efficient travel - lower profile, straighter keel, asymmetric hull.
Lincoln: 5.3. Wenonah: Adirondack; Minnesota II; Escapade; Wenonah 17; Spirit II; Aurora; Heron; Prism; Solo Plus; Itasca. Mad River: Malecite
Fishing: Generally wider and shorter, goal is to provide a stable platform with room for gear and accessories.
Lincoln: Sportsman. Wenonah: Kingfisher; Fisherman; Backwater. Mad river: Adventurer 14 & 16
General Purpose/Day paddling: Camp/cottage boats - family, company, kids, short camping trips. Boat design here has a lot of focus on initial stability.
Lincoln: Concord; Hidden Pond 12 & 14; Hideaway. Wenonah: Boundary Waters; Kingfisher; Aurora; Heron; Prism; Solo Plus; Fusion; Wee Lassie. Mad River: Explorer; Adventurers
River Tripping: The river version of wilderness touring boats - capacity to carry gear, while maintaining the maneuverability essential for moving water or twisty creeks.
Wenonah: Prospector 15 & 16; Argosy
Freestyle: If you want to dance on the water, this is for you. With river boat features - symmetric, rocker'ed hull with some depth and shorter length - they let you focus on what you can do with the paddle. See https://vimeo.com/13507990
Whitewater: The far end of the river boat spectrum. Short, lots of rocker, tough material, very limited (to no) gear capacity.
Keep in mind that canoes are amazingly versatile - except at the extreme ends of the spectrum, most boats can do some of everything - it's a matter of how well and how safely.
Do background research to narrow the field
There are a lot of good boats in every category. You can't test paddle them all. Some research will narrow the field to a reasonable number. Don't sweat that you might miss a good boat, there are a lot of them out there and you'll still end up with a smile.
An online search will find guides from manufacturers, shops and other paddlers. Most are really good and share similar categorizations of boats. If you're just getting started, it's worth your time to walk thru a few - if nothing else it will help with the terminology.
Manufacturer sites will also provide boat specs - you'll quickly see patterns that will help understand how they classify their boats and which boats are likely to perform in similar ways. Wenonah's website (Wenonah.com) is a trove of information. Lincoln (paddlelincoln.com) has boat specs, descriptions and manufacturing information. Mad River's site (madrivercanoe.com) is a little more basic, but has a good canoe model chooser.
Look at online videos, especially ones from manufacturers. Videos let you see boats in action and are a great way to learn about different characteristics and how they impact performance.
A really good resource are paddling clubs and online forums. Tell them what you're interested in and ask for recommendations. If you already have specific canoes in mind, look for reviews and ask for comments from current and past owners. The community is very friendly.
I found https://paddling.com with it's forums particularly good. Registering and starting a thread was easy and folks are really responsive and helpful. There are a lot of boat reviews (check to see how recent they are), most with additional comments from owners.
And, of course, talk to the folks at your shop.
Test paddles are key
Buying a boat you haven't paddled is a risk, even if it has perfect specs. This is another place where your local shop will be a big help. If they don't have one in their demo fleet, then there may be a way to try a retail boat (you'll have to be ready to buy unless it really disappoints). NK&C has a number of canoes in our demo fleet you can try.
Your shop can also see if they have customers who bought the boat you want to try. The shop may be able to you help arrange a test (worked for me). They can also check to see if the product rep can locate the boat in the area. Be ready to drive a bit.
If you looking at a lake boat, try to test paddle in conditions with a bit of wind.
When figuring your budget remember you'll also need some kit: Life vest/PFD + whistle, paddle + spare, and maybe other stuff (depending on what you have). Set aside money for good quality, comfortable kit, use what's left for the canoe.
We're back to the most important thought - buying a canoe you'll actually use. If your kit isn't comfortable, you're not going to use it and you're back to "boat in the barn" syndrome.
Two Final Thoughts
Don't hyperventilate or lose sleep - it is, after all, a boat. If it turns out it's not quite right for you, it will be right for someone else.
Work with folks who make you smile while you're searching and the smiles are more likely to continue when you're paddling.
Want to dig a little deeper? Here's more useful information on Canoes: